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Activity 1.1: The Hail Ballad

This activity looks at how people heard the news in Restoration England. It looks at the role of songs, known as broadside ballads, in communicating the news, focusing on a ballad from 1680 about a hailstorm in London.
  1. Begin by asking children how we keep up to date with the news. What different ways are there to find out about current events? Make a list, which will probably include the following:
  • Internet
  • Radio
  • Television
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Word of mouth
  1. Ask the children which of these ways to hear the news were available to people in Restoration England. (If the children have studied the Great Fire of London and the diaries of Samuel Pepys, you can ask them what ways Samuel Pepys would have had to hear the news.) Make a list, which should include:
  • Newspapers
  • Word of mouth
  1. If you have time, explain that newspapers were quite new in Samuel Pepys' time. Around the middle of the seventeenth century, the news started to be printed in pamphlets, which were printed and distributed around the country. During the English Civil War, they were used to inform people about battles and various political manoeuvres. Sometimes they were quite biased, openly supporting one particular side. These were usually one-off pamphlets, not newspapers that came out every day or every week. Regular newspapers began in the 1660s. The London Gazette is the oldest regular newspaper, which was first printed in 1665.
  1. Ask the children how the majority of people would have heard the news. Would it have been from newspapers or by word of mouth? Why? If they have not already said so, explain that the most common way to hear the news was by word of mouth. This is because not everybody could read, and because newspapers could be quite expensive.
  1. Ask the children what problems there might be with people spreading the news by telling it to each other. They will probably say that the news might not be accurately reported, or that people might exaggerate the stories. This is one reason why there were official people to communicate the news orally. Many towns had a 'town crier', whose job was to shout out the news. The town crier would stand in a public place, like a market square, wear a brightly coloured coat and carry a bell, which he would ring to attract people's attention. He would shout 'Oyez! oyez! oyez!', which is a corrupted version of the old French for 'listen!' The town crier would then read the news in a loud voice. Afterwards, he would pin a sheet containing the news on the door of a tavern, so that people could read it. Display this picture of Chester's town crier (clicking on the potograph will display a larger version). Town criers had royal protection, and attacking a town crier carried a heavy penalty. Ask children why this was the case. They will probably say because the town crier might bring bad news. One example could be an increase in taxes.
  1. Ballad SingerExplain that town criers were not the only people that communicated the news orally. Often, people would make up songs to tell the news. They composed rhyming verses and sang them to well-known tunes, in taverns, at markets and fairs, or in people's homes. These songs are known as ballads. Sometimes ballad singers would stand on street corners and sing the news, as in this picture (click on the picture to see a bigger version in a new window). Often, travelling tradesmen, or pedlars, would sing ballads in the different places they visited.
  1. On 18th May 1680, a violent hailstorm hit London. We know this because a ballad was written about it. The ballad's tune and a selection of the original sixteen verses can be found here (this is an external site). After a vocal warm-up, teach the song and sing it together.
Ideas for vocal warm-ups can be found here: Working with Vocal Music.pdf

Click here to listen to a performance of the song. 


Click here to play the backing track. 

Download the music as a PDF file: M1 Hail Ballad music.pdf

Download the words as a PDF file: W1 Hail Ballad words.pdf

  1. Ask the children why people might have made up rhyming verses and sang the news? Discuss the fact that it is often easier to remember rhymes than prose, and that the sound of singing can often be heard above the hubbub of a busy market place, so that pedlars would have been able to attract people's attention by singing.
  1. As well as being sung by pedlars, many thousands of ballads were written down and printed on single sheets of paper. These sheets were called broadsides, so the ballads became known as broadside ballads. The ballads were very cheap to buy, costing only a penny or even a halfpenny. Sometimes the ballads were folded into little books, called 'chapbooks' (chap is probably a corruption of 'cheap'). These were sold by chapmen. Someone whose last name is Chapman could be descended from a seller of these ballad books.
  1. Look at the image of the hail ballad (this links to an external site). Ask the children the following questions:
  • How do we know what the ballad is about?

  • Can you see any printed music?

  • How did people know what tune to sing?

  • Look at a verse of the ballad. What makes it difficult to read?

  1. Explain the following points:
  • As well as the title, the picture shows what the ballad is about. Pictures on broadside ballads were usually woodcuts. These are made by carving an image into a block of wood. The parts that will be black on the printed picture are not carved, and grooves in the wood are made for the parts that will be white. Ink is then applied to the wood, using a roller; it only leaves ink on the uncut parts of the block. Paper is then pressed onto the woodblock and the picture is printed.

  • There is no printed music on most broadside ballads, but the sheet usually tells you the name of the tune to which it can be sung. These tunes were well known, so people would probably not need the music.

  • The verses of the ballad are hard to read because they use a typeface, or font, known as black letter, or gothic. This typeface was used in printing ballads until about 1700. After that, roman typefaces were used instead. These are much easier to read. Ballads in the gothic type are called 'black-letter ballads'; ballads in roman type are called 'white-letter ballads'.

  1. Ask the children whether they think that the story told by this ballad is a 'true' account of the storm. Discuss whether the story might have been changed or exaggerated by the ballad writers. You may like to compare the ballad with ways the news is reported today. Can we always believe what we read in the newspapers?
  1. Explain that not all broadside ballads told the news. Some recounted historical events, but many told made-up stories. Robin Hood was a favourite character in broadside ballads. Some ballads are songs about friendship and good company (such as the famous ballad, 'To Drive the Cold Winter Away') but most tell stories: of knights, kings, lovers or common folk. Many are rather bawdy!
  1. Explain to the children that thousands of broadside ballads were printed between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some people made collections of ballads, one such person was Samuel Pepys. He collected over 1,800 ballads, and filed them under different categories. The ballad about London's hailstorm is included in Pepys' collection.
Return to Activity Pack 1: Musical news

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